Coming just days after the April 6th death of Merle Haggard, this year’s All for the Hall benefit concert for Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum doubled as a celebration of the icon — early in the show, Emmylou Harris referred to Haggard as “the north star of country music,” before singing his “Kern River.” On the surface, some of the artists on the bill couldn’t have been further from Haggard’s twangy type of California country, but all rose to the occasion, with Luke Bryan calling an audible for “Big City” in his set, and Sam Hunt silencing any critics with a faithful take on the Hag’s “The Way I Am.”
By the time the sixth show ended (it took a year off in Nashville in 2015) with an all-star rendition of “Mama Tried,” hosts Keith Urban and Vince Gill and their guests had raised three-quarter of a million dollars for the Hall (specifically in support of the institution’s education programs) and added another milestone concert to the All for the Hall legacy. Here’s our 10 best moments from the Nashville night.
Best Host: Keith Urban
Near the end of All for the Hall, Urban professed his intention to continue the benefit shows well into his eighties. He joked that, at that age, he wouldn’t know any of the artists and that guitars may be extinct in country music, but his point was made: the dude is committed. Instead of using the packed house to pitch his upcoming album Ripcord, Urban kept the focus squarely on the Hall and the fans, treating them to a one-two punch of hits — a vibrant “Somewhere in My Car” and the slinky “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” — and even playing comic foil to Luke Bryan. We’ll see you in your senior years, Keith.
Best Storyteller: Vince Gill
No one would have blamed Gill had he sat out this year’s show — it was his 59th birthday, after all. But instead, he came to play. Dressed in a fedora and a Nashville Predators jersey (No. 7, with “Vince” on the back), Gill, himself a Country Music Hall of Famer, dedicated his performance to Merle Haggard. “On my birthday, I want to honor the greatest inspiration I ever had in my life,” he said, before launching into “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” When he wasn’t delivering sublime solos, he was sharing tall tales and anecdotes — about his friendship with Emmylou Harris, the temptation of dessert (“I can’t eat cake and play these songs, too”) and realizing the road isn’t exactly keeping him young. During a recent Time Jumpers tour, Gill said the band’s bus was flashed by a young woman and, “None of us got up to look.”
Best Show Stealer: Chris Janson
Show organizers should know by now, but they’re still sticking Chris Janson in early performance slots and he’s still making it damn near impossible for anyone to follow him. Opening with a slightly funkier rendition of his Number One “Buy Me a Boat,” Janson high-kicked and prowled the stage with the manic energy that has become his calling card. But with his second selection — a scorching, nearly-punk rendition of Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” he peeled off a machine gun barrage of harmonica squeals while Urban and Gill watched in delight. As Janson exited the stage, Urban remarked, “Entertainer of the Year, right there!”
Best Honky-Tonker: Tracy Lawrence
Where did classic country singing go? Tracy Lawrence has it under lock and key. A Nineties stalwart, the “Time Marches On” vocalist hasn’t lost a bit of his high lonesome wail and his appearance at All for the Hall was a welcome dose of honky-tonk. His 2006 hit “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” charmed both Urban and Gill, but it was a bluesy take on Joe Cocker’s “Now That the Magic Has Gone” that proved Lawrence’s influences extend well past Hank and Merle.
Best Greasy Groove: Maren Morris
The diminutive Texan packs some mighty soul, so it was a treat to hear her unique take on Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Slowed down from its original discofied tempo to a nasty, hypnotic groove, Parton’s treatise on workers’ empowerment sounded like Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good” as Little Feat might imagine it. With her just-behind-the-beat delivery, Morris’ laid back embellishments glowed with the same warmth that makes her own music so compelling. As a bonus, she got a little practice run of getting the crowd to sing her song “My Church” before she returns to the Bridgestone Arena with Keith Urban later this year.
Best Guitar Trio: Jason Isbell, Vince Gill, Keith Urban
While this summit of contemporary country, Americana and neo-traditionalism may seem like a head-scratcher on paper, it was clear the three share a respect for one another as guitar players. Taking on Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” the three showed the way their styles could blend together during an epic solo section — Isbell leading the way with his bluesy runs, followed by Gill’s stinging tone and Urban’s melodic, fluid picking. It’s hard not to believe we could be in a better, less divisive space if more artists coming from different aesthetic sensibilities were similarly willing to find some common ground.
Best Energy: Peter Frampton
With “Mashville,” celebrating the diversity of today’s Music City, the theme of All for the Hall, Frampton’s inclusion was a perfect fit. A longtime resident of Nashville, the Seventies guitar god, who recently released his hits collection Acoustic Classics, tipped his hat to Buddy Holly with a solo run through “Peggy Sue.” But Frampton knew what his audience came for (at least the more seasoned members), and rewarded them with the guitar acrobatics of “Do You Feel Like We Do.” When the English-born shredder stepped to a second mic for the song’s robotic talk-box solo, it was 1976 all over again, leaving the crowd awed and Keith Urban sporting a huge grin.
Best Bro Revival: Florida Georgia Line
Anyone who thought that the emergence of Chris Stapleton would vanquish bro country forever (and there are a lot of us) might want to reconsider. The mere appearance by Florida Georgia Line resulted in one of the loudest ovations of the evening, and Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard’s umpteenth, but still energetic, performance of “Cruise” was met with an arena-wide sing-along. While it remains to be seen how the polarizing duo’s upcoming new album will impact the genre, there’s no denying the appetite remains for FGL. Even more clear after their stage-eating set? That all sides of country — All for the Hall included artists from Jason Isbell to Luke Bryan — can coexist.
Best Superstars in Waiting: Maddie and Tae
With harmonies that rival the Dixie Chicks, songwriting prowess that fills Taylor Swift’s old boots and a sincere reverence for country music history, Maddie and Tae are the total Nashville package. They proved that Tuesday night with a flawless performance of the clever tune that put them on the map, “Girl in a Country Song,” prefaced by a mesmerizing cover of Lee Ann Womack’s “Never Again Again” — displaying both sass and class. Why this talented twosome isn’t getting Florida Georgia Line-level attention (yet) is beyond us. Along with fellow All for the Hall guest Maren Morris, there’s no better group of women to take country into its future.
Best Surprise Hag Tributes: Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan
The spirit of Merle Haggard was everywhere during All for the Hall, from Keith Urban’s t-shirt to the closing ensemble version of “Mama Tried.” But two of the most surprising tributes came from polarizing country figures Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan. After getting the crowd to its feet with his own “House Party,” Hunt strapped on an acoustic guitar to sing a lovely version of “The Way I Am” that emphasized his silky croon, equal parts soul and twang. For his part, Bryan called a gutsy audible for an unrehearsed “Big City.” While Urban and Gill heroically winged their way through the changes, Bryan situated himself as their equal on the stage and sang with the kind of feeling that made questioning his reverence for the country legend seem utterly ridiculous.